8 Steps for Making Better Garden Soil | MOTHER EARTH NEWS



Use these organic and natural methods to make healthy garden soil from common dirt.



  • 8 Steps for Making Better Garden Soil | MOTHER EARTH NEWS

    This garden needed room to grow!

    Photo courtesy Walter Chandoha

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  • 8 Steps for Making Better Garden Soil | MOTHER EARTH NEWS

    The first step was to cover the ground with compost.

    Photo courtesy Walter Chandoha

  • 8 Steps for Making Better Garden Soil | MOTHER EARTH NEWS

    Next, the garden was divided into permanent beds and paths to protect the soil from foot traffic.

    Photo courtesy Walter Chandoha

  • 8 Steps for Making Better Garden Soil | MOTHER EARTH NEWS

    For the best compost, mix “greens” (seen here) and “browns.” “Greens” are fresh materials, rich in nitrogen.

    Photo courtesy iStockPhoto/Nicola Stratford

  • 8 Steps for Making Better Garden Soil | MOTHER EARTH NEWS

    The result: a colorful, productive garden that was built without any tillage.

    Photo courtesy Walter Chandoha

  • 8 Steps for Making Better Garden Soil | MOTHER EARTH NEWS

     “Browns” are drier materials, rich in carbon.

    Photo courtesy iStockPhoto/Wally Stemberger

  • 8 Steps for Making Better Garden Soil | MOTHER EARTH NEWS

    To build a compost pile, start by layering organic materials. Alternate more readily decomposable materials — fresh, high-nitrogen wastes, such as manures, crop residues, kitchen wastes and weeds — with less decomposable materials — drier, coarser and high-carbon wastes, such as autumn leaves, straw and corncobs.

    Photo courtesy Walter Chandoha

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  • 8 Steps for Making Better Garden Soil | MOTHER EARTH NEWS

    Harvey and Ellen disturb their soil as little as possible. Digging root crops is almost the only time they dig up the ground.

    Photo courtesy Harvey Ussery

  • 8 Steps for Making Better Garden Soil | MOTHER EARTH NEWS

    Put chickens in your garden during the fall and winter, and they’ll eat bugs and weed seeds, till lightly and fertilize.

    Photo courtesy Megan Phelps

  • 8 Steps for Making Better Garden Soil | MOTHER EARTH NEWS

    As best you can, never leave your soil bare. Cover crops are low-maintance and add valuable nutrients to the soil. The cover crop shown here is vetch.

    Photo courtesy David Cavagnaro

  • 8 Steps for Making Better Garden Soil | MOTHER EARTH NEWS

    Cover crops are useful both for small patches in the garden, or for whole fields on a farm. This field is planted with buckwheat, which smothers weeds because it grows so quickly.

    Photo courtesy Walter Chandoha

  • 8 Steps for Making Better Garden Soil | MOTHER EARTH NEWS

    As best you can, never leave your soil bare. Cover crops are low-maintance and add valuable nutrients to the soil. Oats and field peas planted together make an excellent cover crop.

    Photo courtesy David Cavagnaro

  • 8 Steps for Making Better Garden Soil | MOTHER EARTH NEWS

    As best you can, never leave your soil bare. Cover crops are low-maintance and add valuable nutrients to the soil. The cover crop shown here is red clover.

    Photo courtesy David Cavagnaro

  • 8 Steps for Making Better Garden Soil | MOTHER EARTH NEWS

    As best you can, never leave your soil bare. Cover crops are low-maintance and add valuable nutrients to the soil. The cover crop shown here is white clover. 

    Photo courtesy David Cavagnaro

  • 8 Steps for Making Better Garden Soil | MOTHER EARTH NEWS

    A broadfork is great for low-tech gardening; it loosens the soil without destroying its structure.

    Photo courtesy Megan Phelps

  • 8 Steps for Making Better Garden Soil | MOTHER EARTH NEWS

    A scythe is great for low-tech gardening; it cuts grass and weeds.

    Photo courtesy Megan Phelps

  • 8 Steps for Making Better Garden Soil | MOTHER EARTH NEWS

    Many materials make good mulch, so use what you have! From left to right: Shredded bark, wood chips, sawdust, straw, coco hulls, leaves, shredded leaves and grass clippings.

    Photo courtesy David Cavagnaro


Starting to build a new garden isn’t difficult. Most people begin by going out into their yards with a shovel or garden tiller, digging up the dirt and putting in a few plants. Following the organic and natural methods, add a little mulch or compost, and you’re well on your way to make good soil for your homegrown vegetables. But in the long run, the success of your garden depends on making healthy garden soil. The more you can do to keep your soil healthy, the more productive your garden will be and the higher the quality of your crops.

In the last issue, I discussed the value of soil care methods that imitate natural soil communities. These include protecting soil structure, feeding the soil with nutrients from natural and local sources, and increasing the diversity and numbers of the microbes and other organisms that live in the soil.

In this article, I’ll focus on specific ways to achieve these goals. There are many ways to do this, but they all revolve around two basic concepts: For more fertile soil, you need to increase organic matter and mineral availability, and whenever possible, you should avoid tilling the soil and leave its structure undisturbed.

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Add Organic Matter

For the best soil, sources of organic matter should be as diverse as possible.



1. Add manures for nitrogen. All livestock manures can be valuable additions to soil — their nutrients are readily available to soil organisms and plants. In fact, manures make a greater contribution to soil aggregation than composts, which have already mostly decomposed.

You should apply manure with care. Although pathogens are less likely to be found in manures from homesteads and small farms than those from large confinement livestock operations, you should allow three months between application and harvest of root crops or leafy vegetables such as lettuce and spinach to guard against contamination. (Tall crops such as corn and trellised tomatoes shouldn’t be prone to contamination.)




8 Steps for Making Better Garden Soil | MOTHER EARTH NEWS

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